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Album review: Jeff Tweedy solo project alludes a subtle, spectacular sadness

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Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer deliver a lilting, vulnerable and enjoyable product in the form of Tweedy’s solo debut, “Sukierae.” The album is a textured and eclectic blend of songs and styles. My first couple of listens suggest that it will be a rewarding album to come back to, and that there will be something to be gleaned every time one listens to it.

Tweedy has often been encouraged to branch out onto the solo recording scene. His live DVD “Sunken Treasure” was well-received and he has always done live solo gigs. And prior to the current makeup of his band Wilco, presently featuring virtuoso musicians like lead guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, he had been known as something of a perfectionist in the studio and for firing several of Wilco’s members.

But until now, a solo act was something Tweedy had never fully indulged in. Even so, calling this album purely a solo recording isn’t quite fair to Tweedy’s son Spencer, who plays drums on “Sukierae.” The album’s development was apparently at least in part inspired by Tweedy’s wife’s struggle with lymphoma.

And in interviews, Tweedy has cited this as a reason for the looser, more sprawling sound of the album. He told Rolling Stone that he wanted the music to reflect “that cuteness and playfulness” of working with his son.

Short, sporadic punky opener “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood” immediately reflects this. It sounds more like it fits on a Pixies record a Wilco record. And its lyrics reach back to Tweedy’s pained narrator on Wilco’s “Misunderstood” and to the impatience of Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane’s “Misunderstood.”

Not every track on the album shines. In fact, that’s the only minor problem here. Not every song feels like an essential track, or like something that Tweedy hasn’t already encapsulated previously for Wilco. But the album’s cohesion and its resonating flow hold up well.

The next song, “High As Hello,” is a lovely alt-country ballad that previews the harmony featured all over “Sukierae.” It’s one of my favorite things about the album. Tweedy loves reaching back to ‘70s pop and country, and the backing harmonies on this album sound terrific.

“World Away” adds a cool punch to another ‘70s-esque number that is reminiscent of the work of punk-pop singer Nick Lowe, while the proggy dissonance of “Diamond Light Pt. 1” makes it one of the album’s highlights.

On “Wait for Love,” Tweedy finds one of the most touching lyrics that he’s concocted in years, especially in light of his wife’s lymphoma. “I guess you say we don’t matter / And I bet that could be true / But I still wanna look in your eyes and say I’ll wait for you.”

“Low Key” is another highlight, featuring gorgeous backing harmonies joining along in singing some more of Tweedy’s touching, devoted lyrics — “If I get excited, nobody knows / But I’m going to love you the same.”

The soundscapes of “Slow Love” are intense and engrossing. “Nobody Dies Anymore,” “Summer Noon” (prominently featured on the masterful Richard Linklater film “Boyhood”), “New Moon,” “Hazel” and “Down From Above” are the strongest remaining tracks on the album.

“Sukierae” is a must-listen. Its enriching layers, personal lyrics and loose grooves prove that Jeff Tweedy and his son, Spencer (who does a nice job of adding some Bonham-esque rhythms throughout) were right to have put it out. It’s no “Wilco-lite” album. It’s a beautiful and contemplative musical document, done only as Jeff Tweedy could do it. He’ll never go for the proverbial lyrical and/or musical dagger in expressing his love or his grief, he’ll do it in a “Low Key” fashion. But he’ll devastate us, the audience, just the same.

 

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